Next season’s Buffalo Sabres could look very different

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It seemed like the Buffalo Sabres’ organization received a surge of excitement from the moment new owner Terry Pegula took over. The team was in a dire situation months before that happened, especially when Derek Roy went down with a knee injury that ended his season (save for a single appearance in Game 7 of the team’s first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers).

The Sabres made a spirited run toward the playoffs, narrowly outlasting teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs for one of the final two spots. They made the aggressive (if questionable) move to acquire Brad Boyes during the trade deadline and generally seem willing to spend the money to go from a solid, playoff-ready team to a genuine contender in the East.

This prompts two important questions: is GM Darcy Regier smart enough to make the right moves and will head coach Lindy Ruff be able to guide that roster once it is completed?

No doubt about it, the Sabres have a lot of questions to answer this off-season. That could be a really good thing (the team should have $15.6-$18.6 million to work with if they plan on spending to the cap ceiling) or a bad one (they have 13 players under contract, with 7-10 spots to fill) depending on the decisions Regier makes.

For the sake of this exercise, we’ll just look at the players who could become unrestricted or restricted free agents come July 1.

Forwards

Tim Connolly (unrestricted, previously made $4.5 million) – Going into the stretch run, it seemed like Buffalo’s “Mr Glass” would be an obvious goner. Through his first 47 games, he scored just 26 points. Yet he seemed to get things together in March, scoring 16 points in his last 21 games. Finishing the 2010-11 season strongly (and an encouraging 65 points in 78 games in 09-10) might make him tougher to dismiss in Buffalo if he’s willing to take a pay-cut and short-term deal.

Nathan Gerbe (restricted, previously made $850 K) – In my mind’s eye, I tend to mix up Gerbe and Tyler Ennis with disturbing frequency. Maybe it’s the fact they’re both short in stature; perhaps it’s their unusual numbers (Gerbe wears 42; Ennis sports 63). Either way, they’re both undersized players who can provide some magic to the team’s forward mix. Buffalo will have to pony up a moderate raise for Gerbe this summer and a more significant one for Ennis in 2012.

Rob Niedermayer (unrestricted, $1.25 million); Mike Grier (unrestricted, $1.5 million) – These are two aging veterans who make marginal impacts in the regular season until their rugged play, hockey intelligence and experience helps more in the playoffs. The Sabres might be wise to offer them two-way contracts at this point in their careers.

Other unrestricted free agent forwards:

Matt Ellis (625K)
Mark Parrish (600K)
Mark Mancari (575K)
Cody McCormick (500K)

Backup goalie

Jhonas Enroth (restricted, $867K); Patrick Lalime (unrestricted, 650K) – Do the Sabres have their much-needed backup for all-world goalie Ryan Miller in Enroth? They certainly don’t in Lalime, who was basically a second goalie coach toward the end of the 2010-11 season. Enroth didn’t receive a ton of opportunities to prove himself one way or the other, but he did save the Sabres season, so maybe a modest backup deal for two years is in order.

Defensemen

Marc-Andre Gragnani (restricted, $500K) – After scoring three points in only nine regular season games, Gragnani was a difference-maker in the playoffs, putting up an outstanding seven points in seven contests. He might not be the offensive defenseman they’ve been dying for, but he could be a solid depth option and stopgap solution. The question is: how much will that hot run cost the Sabres?

Andrej Sekera (restricted, $1 million); Steve Montador (unrestricted, $1.5 million) – Neither of these defensemen are “world-beaters,” but they received around 20 minutes per game at affordable clips. Sekera has far more promise than Montador from a long-term perspective, but both of their negotiations will come down to price.

Mike Weber (restricted, $550K); Chris Butler (restricted, $850 K) – Again, these are two defensemen who are expendable but might be retained if their asking prices are modest. Like Sekera, they own the advantage of being younger since they’re all 24 years old.

***

As you can see, the Sabres have a lot of decisions to make, but there aren’t a ton of make-or-break questions to answer (not after signing Drew Stafford to a contract extension, at least). Signing Gerbe, Enroth and Gragnani will likely require the toughest negotiations while the other players require judgment calls.

It’s not crazy to wonder if the team might make a big pitch for Brad Richards considering their copious amounts of cap space and limited options to improve their biggest weaknesses on defense. Either way, we’ll keep you informed as the Pegula era truly beings in Buffalo this summer.

The Buzzer: Greiss shutout gives Trotz win in return to Washington

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Three stars

1. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

There was probably a little pressure inside the Islanders dressing room prior to this one. Sure, it was just another game in the 82-game slog that is the regular season, but for their head coach, it was a bit more special than that.

Barry Trotz made his return to Washington for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup as the Capitals bench boss last June. They gave him a classy tribute and then he and his Islanders made sure they wouldn’t forget him in a 2-0 win.

Greiss was instrumental in that, stopping all 19 shots he faced as the Islanders leapfrogged both Washington and Columbus to move into first place in the Metropolitan Division.

John Tavares who?

2. Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers

Sticking with goalies and their help in big wins… Luongo stopped 20 of the 21 shots he faced in a 3-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s not a 40-save night, but consider that the Panthers came into the game with a seven-game losing streak as a heavy anchor. They needed something, and Luongo provided the near-perfect game to end the longest active streak in the NHL.

3. Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames

Bennett usually gets lost in the Johnny Gaudreaus and the Sean Monahans of the Calgary world.

Some nights the other two don’t light it up, allowing other Flames to shine. Bennett provided that spark, scoring twice and adding an assist in the game.

Bennett’s second of the came with under four minutes left and broke a 4-4 deadlock in a 6-4 Calgary win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Highlights of the night

Bennett’s winner came off a nice pick up on a not so nice pass:

Kuemper the keeper:

A nice tribute to Brooks Orpik, who played his 1,000th game on Friday:

When you celly too hard:

Factoids

Scores

Panthers 3, Maple Leafs 1
Canadiens 4, Blue Jackets 1
Islanders 2, Capitals 0
Senators 4, Hurricanes 1
Flames 6, Red Wings 4
Penguins 3, Coyotes 2 (OT)
Canucks 4, Sabres 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Caps give Trotz, coaching staff classy tribute in return to Washington

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They helped build a team that would eventually win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup last June, so when Barry Trotz, Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn returned to Washington to face their former team on Friday, it was only fitting that the Capitals made sure to give the trio a classy salute.

And classy it was.

A 1:35-long video played on the jumbotron at Capital One Arena, while a packed house stood and showed their admiration for the coaching staff that led the Capitals to four consecutive 100-point seasons, 205 wins, a .677 points percentage and back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies.

Trotz was named the winner of the Jack Adams Award for the best coach in 2016 and, of course, led the Capitals past the Vegas Golden Knights in five games last season to capture hockey’s greatest prize.

Here’s the video tribute:

Trotz is now the head coach with the New York Islanders, with Korn and Lambert also by his side once again, and they have already put their stamp on that team, helping them get past the loss of John Tavares over the summer and still be a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference.

That’s just the Trotz way.

You can read more about Trotz, his return, why he left and what he’s done on Long Island in this story from PHT’s Sean Leahy.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Matt Dumba’s ‘anger’ led to indefinite stint on sidelines

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Chalk one up for those who are staunch supporters of their star players not engaging in fisticuffs.

Fans of the Minnesota Wild would have wished that Matt Dumba wouldn’t have thrown a “wild punch” at Matthew Tkachuk in a game against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 15.

The fight happened just 40 seconds into the first period. The result? A torn pectoral muscle, surgery, and an indefinite timeline for return.

Dumba, who led the NHL in defenseman scoring prior to the injury, told the Star Tribune’s Sarah McLellan that he was “angry.”

“I was angry and threw a wild punch that didn’t connect,” Dumba said Friday. “I had a bunch of stitches in my face and I think he rubbed those, had hit those a couple times, and it made me pretty angry.”

Dumba, wearing a brace around his right arm, told reporters that he didn’t feel the pain of the injury until he had a chance to calm down in the penalty box.

Dumba’s surgery came on Dec. 26 and along with it, a three-month timetable to return. On Friday, Dumba didn’t have a firm return date.

“It’s pretty slow to start here,” he told NHL.com. “Everything is just letting it heal, letting it get the rest that it needs. That’s our focus right now. I’ve been doing that and making sure this repairs the right way.”

Dumba will be stuck in that brace for a few more weeks before he can start rehabilitating the injury.

The Wild could sure use their best defenseman in the fight for a playoff spot. They could use that scoring — the Wild are 25th in goals-for this season. It appears that if he’s to play again this season, it might not be until the playoffs begin in early April.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Plunging Panthers get a break: Trocheck is back

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About two months since fracturing his ankle in a frightening on-ice accident, Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck is back. He’s suiting up against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner makes it sound like Trocheck essentially kicked down the door to get back in the lineup, as Jameson Olive of the team website reports.

“He came in pounding the table. You know Troch, he wants to be back in so bad,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “The doctors reaffirmed he’s back to 100 percent, so now it’s just our decision … we’ll see.”

Getting the 25-year-old back is a big deal, so it’s not surprising to see the Panthers celebrate this positive development.

You can firmly plant this under the heading “hockey players are tough.” It was perfectly reasonable to expect Trocheck to miss the remainder of the season. Instead, Friday’s game against Toronto is merely the Panthers’ 46th game of 2018-19.

Uncomfortably enough, it’s fair to wonder if Trocheck’s return will still be a matter of “too little, too late.”

The Panthers are carrying a bruising seven-game losing streak into Friday’s action, and it’s not as though the Toronto Maple Leafs will make things particularly easy on them.

Just about all the prognostications look dour. Money Puck gives them a 3.05-percent chance to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, less than their odds for the Los Angeles Kings. Corsica’s projections put Florida at 2.6-percent, this time tying the lowly Kings, but lower than the Devils and Flyers. Woof.

Now, let there be no doubt that the Panthers could be a highly formidable opponent if Trocheck returns at anywhere near “100 percent.”

Even the Trocheck boost likely won’t be enough for Florida to earn just its third postseason trip since 1999-2000, yet with plenty of questions swirling about Boughner’s job security, perhaps a more fully-formed effort could earn the current Panthers regime another swing in 2019-20? However you feel about Boughner and GM Dale Tallon, this franchise’s history is littered with more reboots than “The Fantastic Four” and “Spiderman” movies combined (and with box office receipts that lean more toward The Invisible Woman than webslingers). A little stability could be good for the Panthers.

The worst-case scenario is scary, mind you. What if the Panthers end up hitting the reset button and it’s shown that Trocheck rushed back from injury too soon, possibly aggravating issues?

Such worries hover in the background, but regardless, it’s impressive that Trocheck has been able to return so soon.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.